iPhone 4 antenna: unanswered questions, unearned trust
Damage control, Apple-style.
If I were at the Apple press conference today and was called upon during the Q&A session, this is the question I would have asked:
“You’ve shown some demonstrations of other phones experiencing signal loss when they’re held or touched in certain ways. All cell phones have this problem, you claim. But there’s a difference between the iPhone 4 and these other phones. The iPhone 4 has an antenna that the user can actually touch. The other phones have, at the very least, some thin piece of plastic or other non-conductive material between the user’s hand and the actual antenna. My question is, by choosing an external antenna design, has Apple made the iPhone 4 more susceptible to signal loss due to contact with the user’s hand than other phones with internal antennas?”
Here’s what I suspect Apple’s answer would have been (paraphrasing):
“The external antenna gives the iPhone 4 better reception than earlier iPhones that had internal antennas, as well as many non-Apple phones with internal antennas. Overall, the iPhone 4 gets better reception than its predecessor iPhones.”
If I were allowed a follow-up question, I would have pointed out that Apple didn’t answer my original question:
“I’m not asking about the overall performance of the iPhone 4’s signal reception. I’m asking about one specific design choice and one specific aspect of the Phone 4’s radio performance. Again, my question was, by choosing an external antenna design, has Apple made the iPhone 4 more susceptible to signal loss due to contact with the user’s hand than other phones with internal antennas?”
If Apple didn’t just reiterate its first (non)answer (which is what I suspect would have done), it might have tried something along the lines of pointing out that an external antenna is not very different than an internal antenna that’s just below the surface of a thin cell phone. They might have again cited the videos showing signal loss due to touches, grips, etc., on other phones.
Were I allowed one more follow-up, I would have pointed out that Apple’s proposed solution, its bumper case, provides just a thin layer of rubber and plastic between the antenna and the user’s hand. If that actually mitigates the problem, as Apple claims, then it’s clear that even a thin layer between the user’s hand and the antenna can make a big difference.
But I doubt I’d get that second follow-up, and I’m sure Apple would just reiterate a few of its talking points and move on to the next question.
Thus ends my pretend Apple press conference.
I would really like these questions to have been asked—not to play “gotcha” or make Apple look bad, but to keep it honest. Maybe Apple’s answer would have been that it doesn’t believe the iPhone 4 is more susceptible to this problem due to its external antenna. Fine, let it go on the record with this answer.
My hunch is that the iPhone 4 is more susceptible to signal loss from hand touches due to its external antenna. I also believe it does get better overall reception than earlier iPhones. What bothers me is that Apple, living up to the worst stereotypes of large corporations, hammers on the latter while never addressing the former. Maybe it has something to do with liability in all the class-action lawsuits, maybe it’s just “how things are done,” I don’t know. But it’s a shame.
Steve Jobs said the following at the press conference:
“Apple’s been around for 34 years. Haven’t we earned the credibility and trust from some of the press to give us a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, of our motivations, and the fact that we’re confident we’re going to solve these problems, we’re going to take care of our users? See, I think we have that trust from our users, but I didn’t see it exhibited from some of the press the last few weeks as this thing was blown so far out of proportion. And I’m not saying we’re not at fault, you know? We didn’t educate enough, because we didn’t understand that everybody didn’t know that every smart phone has weak spots.”
Apple would have earned a lot more trust if it’d been more forthcoming about what I consider to be the obvious questions about the iPhone 4’s use of an external antenna. Apple did point out the “easy target” created by the black line between antennas, but didn’t go a step further and talk frankly about any possible trade-offs of the antenna design itself. “We didn’t educate enough” is not much of an admission of fault. Dave Nanian summarizes:
“So, in sum: there is no problem, all phones have this no problem, a case fixes this no problem, free case to fix your no problem. Got it!”
This is a small example of how and why Apple has failed to completely earn the “benefit of the doubt” Steve Jobs wants for his company.
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.